Dr. John brings New Orleans gris-gris to David Bromberg's Big Noise festival

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Dr. John will play at Bromberg's Big Noise music festival on Saturday afternoon at Tubman Garrett Riverfront Park in Wilmington.

When it comes to capturing the voodoo spirit and uncompromised individuality of New Orleans music, there are few characters that embody the essence as effortlessly as Mac Rebennack, the piano-playing Nite Tripper known as Dr. John.

With the passing of Allen Toussaint in 2015, the 76-year-old Rebennack finds himself a singular elder statesman adding inimitable spin to pianistic traditions learned from such teachers as Professor Longhair, James Booker, and Huey “Piano” Smith. Not to mention his favorite: “My Aunt Andre. I started playing with her when I was 8 or 9 years old. She was a badass player,” Rebennack recalled, speaking from New Orleans.

Rebennack isn’t the oldest ivory tickler in NOLA — the great Fats Domino, inactive for years, is 89. But the good doctor is conscious of being a caretaker of the City That Care Forgot. “I feel that spirit is going into me, and that’s a good thing,” he says in that slurpy voice, as rich and piquant as alligator gumbo, widely heard on the 1973 AM-radio hit “Right Place Wrong Time.”


This weekend, Dr. John & the Nite Trippers are a main attraction at Bromberg’s Big Noise Music Festival, happening Saturday at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park in Wilmington.

The fest debuted in 2010, and is being revived as an annual event after a seven-year break. It's hosted by Rebennack’s old friend David Bromberg, the sterling guitarist who owns a violin shop on Market Street.

He’ll play with his David Bromberg & the Big Band configuration. The formidable lineup also features the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Anders Osborne, and Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams. The artisan vendor market is likely to impress thanks to Bromberg’s wife Nancy Josephson, known for bedazzled Outsider and Haitian art-influenced sculptures. And yes, there will be a Dogfish Head beer garden.

Rebennack calls Bromberg, who was born in South Philadelphia and raised in Tarrytown, N.Y.,  “a musician’s musician. I think for years David was the baddest musician you could find. I don’t know what else to say. I remember when David played on Gladys Knight’s record.”

Bromberg recalls being booked with Rebennack for many sessions by Atlantic Records producer Arif Mardin. “I think Mac and I were his seasoning,” Bromberg says. “We couldn’t sound vanilla if we tried. ... Mac and I always sounded a little different.”

Rebennack played on Bromberg’s 2011 album Use Me. “Anytime I get a chance to hear Dr. John — Mac — I’ll take it,” says Bromberg, 71. “I’m really glad to have him at Big Noise because he’s one of my favorite musicians, and one of my favorite human beings on the planet.”

Dr. John has been productive of late.  In 2012, he released the superb Locked Down, produced by Dan Auerbach, and Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit Of Satch, a Louis Armstrong tribute in 2014. The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac and His Music, a live tribute recorded during the Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2015 featured Crescent City players, plus rock stars such as Bruce Springsteen.

This spring’s Jazz Fest gig as Dr. John & the Gris-Gris Krewe was “splendid,” Rebennack says. A dozen years after Hurricane Katrina, he’s bullish on the city he fiercely advocates for.  “I think everything is blessed and everything is good.”  

Rebennack is working on an album dedicated to early 20th-century stride player Fats Waller, and another inspired by Ray Charles’ 1962 Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music.

“I’m trying to do the best that I could do,” he says of making a country record. “Every way I look at it, it bids me a fond adieu.”

He owes his restlessness to the catholic tastes be developed growing up in the Third Ward neighborhood that also produced such luminaries as Armstrong, Master P, and Big Freedia. “I listened to all the music I could get my hands on,” he recalls. “And it was all there.”

Bromberg's Big Noise Music Festival at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park, 40 Rosa Parks Dr., Wilmington, Del., at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.  $44-88. bignoisefestival.com.
Set times for Bromberg's Big Noise Festival on Saturday:
Front Country 12-12:40 p.m.
Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams 12:50-1:35 p.m.
Anders Osborne 2-3:10 p.m.
Dr. John 3:40-4:55 p.m.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood 5:20-6:35 p.m.
Honey Child 6:40-7:10 p.m.
David Bromberg & his Big Band 7:10-8:30 p.m.